W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

‘Immortal advice’ given only in a movie

In Debunking, Media myths, Watergate myth on November 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

Add the New Yorker blog “Rational Irrationality” to the lineup of news organizations and outlets that have invoked Watergate’s most famous made-up line — “follow the money” — as if it were genuine.

Felt: Didn't say it

As if the Washington Post’s stealthy “Deep Throat” source really spoke the line “follow the money” as guidance to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

Which he didn’t.

The “Rational Irrationality” blog the other day joined the likes of the Financial Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post, Minnesota Public Radio, the Providence Journal, media critic Eric Alterman, the Hindu newspaper in India, among others, in invoking the line as if it had been advice earnestly offered by “Deep Throat.”

“Rational Irrationality” referred to the line as “immortal advice,” stating:

“There are two ways to figure out what is really happening in Washington politics. One is to interview Administration officials, congressmen, Capitol Hill staffers, think-tank wonks, and so on, and write down what they say. The other journalistic technique is to heed Deep Throat’s immortal advice to Bob Woodward and follow the money trail. When it comes to budgets and the deficit, the Deep Throat methodology is usually the more informative.”

The line certainly may be timeless. Even “immortal.”  But “Deep Throat” never told Woodward, he of the Washington Post, to “follow the money.”

That line appears nowhere in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Post colleague Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting — reporting that did not, as I discuss in my latest work, Getting It Wrong, bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Moreover, “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial published in the Post  before 1981 — which was years after Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

Follow the money” was a line made for the movies: It was written into the screenplay of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

The line was memorably uttered not by the real-life “Deep Throat” — who in 2005 was self-revealed to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly a top official at the FBI — but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie.

Holbrook turned in an outstanding performance as a conflicted, tormented “Deep Throat.”

And he delivered his “follow the money” lines with such grave assurance and certainty that it seemed to offer a way to understand the intricacies of the Watergate scandal.

But as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office in 1974 was not the misuse of campaign funds but the president’s active role in attempting to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of the Watergate scandal, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Rolling up the scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension was scarcely as straightforward as pursuing misused campaign contributions.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, unraveling Watergate required “the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I argue, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” that cost him the presidency.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:


What ‘lesson’ from Cronkite?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on November 18, 2011 at 2:20 am

The presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 has gained significance far beyond what little influence it exerted at the time.

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” came February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared in a special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the program has “become the stuff of legend — certainly among the most unforgettable moments in American journalism.”

The gauzy legend was embraced yesterday in a commentary at the “Philly Post,” a blog of Philadelphia Magazine.

The commentary argued that journalists should emphasize truth-seeking rather than impartiality in their reporting, and invoked the “Cronkite Moment” to support that claim.

“In one of his most famous newscasts,  the ‘most trusted man in America’  threw objectivity out the window” and offered the “mired in stalemate” assessment about Vietnam, the commentary said, adding:

“In calling it like he saw it, Cronkite was not being impartial, but that doesn’t mean he was being biased. He was stating the conclusion he was led to by the evidence; and Americans — at least those sensible enough to listen— respected him for it. Among the many lessons modern journalists can learn from Cronkite, this is perhaps the most important.”

So that was Cronkite’s “most important” lesson?

A thin lesson it was, then.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment  “was neither notable nor extraordinary” in early 1968.

That’s because “stalemate” had been in use by U.S. news media months before the so-called “Cronkite Moment.”

In August 1967, for example, the New York Times said in a news analysis that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

U.S. victory, the Times said, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times’ analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Also in August 1967, the syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote:

“So long as the present ground rules obtain in Vietnam, this war will drag along its indecisive way. … [T]he condition is stalemate.”

And a few weeks before Cronkite’s on-air commentary, the Times declared in an editorial:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

The real lesson of the “Cronkite Moment” was how the vaunted anchorman trailed the emerging media consensus about the war, turning to “stalemate” only after the characterization had been tested and invoked often, by other news organizations.

Cronkite also trailed public opinion as it turned against the war.

A Gallup poll in October 1967 reported, for the first time, that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought sending American forces to Vietnam had been a mistake.

So in his assessment about Vietnam, Cronkite was neither brave nor cutting edge.

Nor legendary at all.


Recent and related:

USAT evokes mythical ‘crack baby’ scare in report on drug-dependent newborns

In Debunking, Media myths on November 15, 2011 at 7:56 am

USA Today evoked the media-hyped crack baby scare yesterday in a front page report telling of “explosive growth” in numbers of newborns supposedly hooked on prescription drugs.

The report, which appeared with the headline “Surge in babies addicted to drugs,” offered scant hard data and over-the-top word choice, not unlike news accounts of the supposed crack baby epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the crack baby scare “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research.” It turned out to be, as the New York Times put it in 2009, “the epidemic that wasn’t.”

The USA Today article opened with alarming-sounding news that medical authorities “are witnessing explosive growth in the number of newborn babies hooked on prescription painkillers, innocent victims of their mothers’ addictions.

“The trend,” the newspaper declared, “reflects how deeply rooted abuse of powerful narcotics, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, has become.”

To support the claim of “explosive growth,” USA Today turned to a lawyer-politician, the Florida attorney general, who was quoted as saying:

“I’m scared to death this will become the crack-baby epidemic.”

Which, of course, proved mostly an epidemic of media hype.

It didn’t take long for the USA Today account to turn squishy, acknowledging in the fourth paragraph a lack of hard data on this “explosive” topic.

“National statistics on the number of babies who go through withdrawal are not available,” we’re told, “and states with the worst problems have only begun to collect data.”

So USA Today really doesn’t know whether, or just where, the “explosive growth” in drug-dependent newborns is taking place.

The article offered data from Florida, stating that “the number of babies with withdrawal syndrome soared from 354 in 2006 to 1,374 in 2010,” without explaining how the data were collected, or for how long. Or without saying how many children were born those years in Florida.

Lamely, the article stated:

“Scattered reports show the number of addicted newborns has doubled, tripled or more over the past decade.” Which hardly supports the assertion of “explosive growth” in addicted newborns.

Readers also were told of a range of symptoms that drug-hooked newborns exhibit: “They scream, twitch and vomit. They have trouble breathing and eating. They rub their noses with their fists so much their skin bleeds.”

It’s all evocative of the news media’s crack-baby hype, especially in what Jane Brody of the New York Times called “a wide spectrum of ill effects that can result from fetal exposure to cocaine.”

Those effects, Brody wrote in 1988, “include retarded growth in the womb and subtle neurological abnormalities, which may afflict a majority of exposed newborns. In more extreme cases, cocaine can cause loss of the small intestine and brain-damaging strokes. … The litany of threats to newborns is long and growing.”

Indeed, Brody declared, so powerful was the drug that “research suggests that a single cocaine ‘hit’ during pregnancy can cause lasting fetal damage.”

Which was an extraordinary overstatement.

The much-predicted social catastrophe of crack babies, I write in Getting It Wrong, “never materialized.”

Fears that American society “would be overwhelmed by a lost generation of crack-damaged misfits proved wildly exaggerated, a ‘grotesque media stereotype,’ in the words of Deborah A. Frank, one of the country’s leading authorities on prenatal drug exposure.”

I also note:

“The adverse effects that journalists so often attributed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to prenatal exposure to crack turned out to be associated with a variety of factors — such as use during pregnancy of tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana — as well as the quality of the newborn’s environment and the quality of the mother’s prenatal care.”

The crack-baby myth was buoyed, I write, by a tendency among journalists “to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research, and to reach for certainty and definitiveness that are not often found in preliminary findings.”

Journalists pushed too hard on thin, preliminary, and sketchy data, and extrapolated rather extravagantly from small numbers of anecdotes.

It’s a pattern that tends to repeat itself, as journalists fail to take lessons from misreported drug scares of the past.

“What reporters need to do,” the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer has written,  “is challenge their sources in criminal justice, medicine, drug treatment, legislatures, and the user community when they make assertions of fact.

“Among the great failings of the press corps during the crack panic was its enthusiastic endorsement of the trend of ‘crack babies.’ Experts of all stripes lectured the press about these infants, whose chances at normal, healthy lives had been destroyed because their mothers were habituated to cocaine or crack.

“It was all lies.”

None of this is intended to endorse, advocate, or excuse the misuse of prescription drugs.

It is, rather, to underscore and call out the easy temptations of drug-scare stories.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

Accepting the Dicken-Garcia Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Journalism History

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths on November 12, 2011 at 7:49 am

I was honored yesterday to receive the Hazel Dicken-Garcia Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Journalism History, an honor given by the organizers of the annual Symposium on 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression, a conference convened in Chattanooga.

The award recognizes my work in journalism history, including the books Getting It Wrong, The Year That Defined American Journalism, and Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

The award’s namesake, Hazel Dicken-Garcia, is a retired journalism historian at the University of Minnesota who wrote Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth Century America and is regarded as one of the field’s leading lights.

In accepting the award, which is administered by David B. Sachsman of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, I spoke about the importance of myth-busting in media history. I told the conference-goers that “the health and integrity of the field, at least in part, rides on historians’ fulfilling an obligation to bust myths, to seek to set straight the historical record to the extent that’s possible.

“After all,” I added, “to bust myths is to wage war against simplistic and reductive explanations — and to recognize and insist upon the complexity of the historical record.”

I also spoke about my research into media-driven myths, those prominent, well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

I noted that media  myths can be thought of as the junk food of journalism – tasty and alluring, perhaps, but not terribly nutritious, and not terribly healthy.

“Media myths,” I said, “are inescapably media-centric; as such, they tend to distort our understanding of the history, roles, and functions of journalism in American society; media myths typically confer on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.”

Media myths, I added, “often spring from the timeless appeal to distill and simplify, the appeal of condensed, readily digestible historical accounts that are easily grasped, and a delight to retell.”

As examples, I discussed the famous tale about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow at the end of the 19th century to “furnish the war” with Spain and a Civil War-era quotation attributed to Chicago newspaper editor Wilbur F. Storey, who supposedly told a correspondent to  “telegraph fully all news; and when there is no news, send rumors.”

Both tales, I noted, are based on very thin documentation. Both have serious evidentiary problems.

Hearst’s purported vow was supposedly made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal in early 1897 to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

I noted in my talk how it would have made no sense for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” when war — the Cuban rebellion — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba.


Not only that, but the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Hearst and Remington have never turned up; Hearst denied ever making such a vow, and Remington apparently never publicly discussed the matter.

“It’s almost certain that no such telegrams were ever sent,” I said.

The “send rumors” anecdote from the Civil War era is likewise improbable — although undeniably appealing and relevant even today.

“The quotation not only suggests journalism’s inclination to compromise ethics in the gathering of news,” I said, but “it speaks also to the profession’s unending appetite for rumor, gossip, and hearsay.”

The anecdote revolves around instructions supposedly sent in 1864 by Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times, to a correspondent near Nashville, Franc B. Wilkie.

The lone source for Storey’s supposed instructions Wilkie’s memoir,  Personal Reminiscence, which was published in 1891. That was 27 years after the instructions supposedly were sent.

Not only that, but by 1891, Storey had been dead seven years.

I noted that among the reasons for doubting that Storey ever sent such instructions is that they would have been superfluous. It would have made no sense for Storey to have told Wilkie to “send rumors” because the Chicago Times — like many newspapers during the Civil War — routinely printed rumors about battles, about troop movements, and about political developments — and identified them as rumor.

It would have been an unnecessary message, to advise a seasoned correspondent like Wilkie to “send rumors.”

“Simply put,”  I said, “Wilkie would have required no reminder from Storey to ‘telegraph fully all news; and when there is no news, send rumors.'”

I closed my remarks by saying that debunking media myths is  reminder “to be wary about conclusiveness.”

History, I said, “is neither static nor infallible. … There’s plenty of room for skepticism, plenty of room for testing assumptions — for applying tests of evidence and logic to well-known tales and dominant narratives.”


Recent and related:

Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on November 11, 2011 at 12:05 am

Author Jon Krakauer has quietly retreated from claims in a 2009 book that a former White House official, Jim Wilkinson, was the source for the Washington Post’s botched report about Jessica Lynch and her supposed battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

The unattributed assertions about Wilkinson — who was said to have “duped reporters and editors at the Washington Post” — were included in Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.

The claims were removed in a recent printing of the book’s paperback edition, which now contains a footnote, saying:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

The Post has never identified the sources for its report, published on its front page April 3, 2003, that said Lynch had fought fiercely in the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

The Post’s account cited “U.S. officials” in saying that Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, had kept “firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The Post’s electrifying report about the waif-like Army private was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But none of it was true.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah; her rifle jammed during the attack. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash. But Lynch was not shot.

She was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital, from where she was rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

In the years since, the Post has never adequately explained how it so thoroughly erred on the hero-warrior story about Lynch; nor has it disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper awry.

The Post’s silence about its sources has contributed to the rise to a false narrative that the Pentagon concocted the hero-warrior tale in a cynical effort to bolster public support for the war.

Vernon Loeb, one of the reporters who shared the byline on the botched Lynch story, has said that the Pentagon was not the source for the report.

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports at all,” Loeb said on an NPR program in mid-December 2003, adding:

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Even so, the false narrative about Lynch and the Pentagon persists and has deflected attention from the Army sergeant who apparently did fight to the death at Nasiriyah. He was Donald Walters, who laid down covering fire as elements of the 507th tried to flee the ambush.

Walters was captured when his ammunition ran out and was executed by his captors soon afterward.

At the time of the battle at Nasiriyah, Wilkinson was director of strategic communications for General Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Among his prior positions, Wilkinson was deputy director of communications at the White House.

Wilkinson, who had vigorously denied the claims about him in Where Men Win Glory, said he met with Krakauer nearly a year ago in Colorado to discuss corrections.

At that meeting, Wilkinson said, the author told him that his source recanted claims about Wilkinson.

Wilkinson told Media Myth Alert that he was grateful to Krakauer for correcting the record, adding that he feels “100 times better” that the book’s extensive and unflattering assertions about him have been removed. “I greatly appreciate his willingness to meet with me and then issue a corrected version of the book that clears my name,” Wilkinson said.

The unflattering assertions were dropped in June, in what was the 17th printing of the Anchor Books soft-cover edition of Where Men Win Glory. Anchor, an imprint of Random House, issued no announcement about the revisions.

In earlier editions of Where Men Win Glory, Krakauer called Wilkinson a “master propagandist” and identified him as “the guy who deserved top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

Wilkinson, Krakauer also wrote, “duped reporters and editors at the Washington Post … and other media outlets into running wildly hyperbolic stories about Lynch.”

It remains unclear how Krakauer erred so badly in accusing Wilkinson. The author did not reply to an email sent to him yesterday and attempts this week to reach him through his publisher were unavailing.

“Unfortunately, he’s not talking questions at this time,” Russell Perreault, a spokesman for Random House, said by email. “He’s working on a new project.”

Krakauer’s most recent work, Three Cups of Deceit, seeks to puncture the humanitarian reputation of Greg Mortensen, whose charitable organization builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The image of Mortensen that has been created for public consumption,” Krakauer wrote in Three Cups of Deceit, “is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortensen has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built.”


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

Public opinion, Vietnam, and Cronkite’s ‘untouchable aura of authority’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, New York Times on November 5, 2011 at 8:58 am

The fantasy that Walter Cronkite represented an ideal of dispassionate, authoritative news reporting is so alluring that even the anchorman’s long-ago birthday has become an occasion for honoring his “untouchable aura of authority.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s “Around the Mall” blog did just that yesterday, in a post that recalled Cronkite, who was born November 4, 1916, as “an anchor who [spoke] with the authority of a religious leader or founding father.”

A “religious leader or founding father”?

Oh, spare us the hyperbole.

Cronkite read the news for 19 news as anchor of the CBS Evening News program. And his purported trustworthiness was more likely than not a function of a relic of mid-20th century broadcasting called the “Fairness Doctrine.”

Media critic Jack Shafer called attention to this linkage in a fine column written shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009.

Shafer wrote:

“Accepting for the moment the argument the public trusted Cronkite because he practiced trustworthy journalism, it’s worth mentioning that between 1949 and 1987 — which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career — news broadcasters were governed by the federal ‘Fairness Doctrine.’

“The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion. One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy, which all three networks often did.”

Not often did Cronkite court controversy on the air.

The hagiographic “Around the Mall” piece hints at one of those few occasions — in late February 1968 when Cronkite, after a visit to Vietnam, declared the U.S. military effort there was “mired in stalemate.”

“Around the Mall” asserted that “Cronkite’s untouchable aura of authority led droves of viewers to change their opinions on Vietnam.”

And what evidence did the blog post produce?

A comment by David Ward, an historian at the National Portrait Gallery who is the biographer of Charles Willson Peale. Ward was quoted as saying about Cronkite’s reporting:

“He comes back [from Vietnam] and raises real questions about what our aims are, and whether the aims are being accurately reported to the American people. In 1968, there were plenty of people who were protesting the war in Vietnam. It’s the fact that he’s a firmly established, mainstream, church-going, centrist, respectable person that matters.”

Well, maybe. But the historian’s remark is hardly evidence that Cronkite’s views “led droves of viewers to change their opinions on Vietnam.”

More precisely, it was the other way round: Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on the war.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, public support for the war in Vietnam had begun declining months before Cronkite went on the air to say the conflict was “mired in stalemate.”

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought sending American forces to Vietnam had been a mistake.

I also point out in Getting It Wrong that print journalists detected a softening in support of the war long before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, noted that the “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

What’s more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation was hardly a novel or stunning characterization.

Journalists had been using the term “stalemate” for months in commentaries, analysis, and news reports about the war.

For example, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote in August 1967:

“So long as the present ground rules obtain in Vietnam, this war will drag along its indecisive way. … [T]he condition is stalemate.”

Also in August 1967, the New York Times said in a news analysis that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

U.S. victory, the Times said, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

So not only did he trail public opinion, Cronkite followed news media interpretations of the war as well.


Recent and related:

%d bloggers like this: